America quietly sacks its prize witness against Saddam

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The Independent US

Once he was a prize witness before congressional committees, arguing that the US must invade Iraq immediately because Saddam Hussein possessed a fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Given a top job in Baghdad after the war, he has now been quietly sacked by the US authorities.

Khidir Hamza was the dissident Iraqi nuclear scientist who played an important role persuading Americans to go to war in Iraq. His credentials appeared impeccable because he claimed to have headed Saddam's nuclear programme before defecting in 1994.

After the war, Dr Hamza was rewarded, to the distress of many Iraqi scientists, with a well-paid job as the senior advisor to the Ministry of Science and Technology. Appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, he had partial control of Iraq's nuclear and military industries.

It was not a successful appointment, according to sources within the ministry. Dr Hamza seldom turned up for work. He obstructed others from doing their jobs. On 4 March, his contract was not renewed by the CPA. It is now trying to evict him from his house in the heavily guarded "Green Zone" where the CPA has its headquarters. He could not be contacted by The Independent but is believed to have taken up a job with a US company.

Dr Hamza's fall from grace with the US administration is in sharp contrast with the seriousness with which it took his views on WMD before the war. Speaking excellent English, he was also regularly interviewed by US television and quoted by the press.

There were always doubts that Dr Hamza had been as central as he claimed to Saddam's programme to develop a nuclear bomb. Dr Hussain Shahristani, an Iraqi nuclear scientist, tortured and imprisoned under Saddam for refusing to help build a nuclear device, said: "Hamza really was only a minor figure in our nuclear programme and always exaggerated his own importance when he got to the US."

Dr Hamza's own account of his career was that, after being educated in the US, he had been working at Florida State University in 1969 when he was approached by an Iraqi agent. He was told that unless he returned to Iraq his family would be in danger. He came back and was compelled to work for 20 years for Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission on developing an atomic bomb. Deeply opposed to the project, he defected to the US embassy in Hungary in 1994 and swiftly became a persuasive expert witness, testifying as an Iraqi insider on how Saddam was developing a terrifying arsenal. In the lead-up to the war he proclaimed: "Saddam has a whole range of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, biological and chemical."

It was as if Dr Hamza had studied the agenda of the hawks in the US, who wanted to invade Iraq, and was willing to supply evidence supporting their arguments. Several other Iraqi defectors during the 1990s also produced information which they said proved Saddam was secretly producing WMD, but Dr Hamza was the most convincing because he was able to clothe his evidence in appropriate scientific jargon. He wrote a book, Saddam's Bomb Maker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda.

One employer in the US decided that his account of his past simply did not stand up to examination but the US government stuck by him and made him a consultant to the US Department of Energy. Dr Hamza also hinted that Saddam had secret links to al-Qa'ida and might give them anthrax.

Back in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, Dr Hamza's position as a senior advisor was very influential. The US-appointed advisors share control over ministries with Iraqi ministers. The ministry was, among other things, in charge of monitoring and securing the remains of Iraq's nuclear industry.

Dr Hamza's life in Baghdad was not entirely happy. At first he lived outside the Green Zone with his family until a remotely detonated bomb exploded near his car on the morning of Christmas Eve, buckling the doors and blowing out the windows.

He and his son were in the car at the time but were not injured. Dr Hamza asked for and was given a house in the Green Zone. It is this which the CPA is now trying to recover.

Of the Iraqi defectors after the Gulf War in 1991 who built a career in the US by providing evidence that Saddam Hussein was covertly building up an arsenal of WMD, Dr Hamza was the most successful. Once the war was over and no WMD had been found, he was something of an embarrassment, all the more so since he could not do his job.